Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

S&A, liberal immigration, and not relying on 2nd hand information.

When researching the very crucial issue, about the conditions for strawberry workers employed by S&A, in the Independent; I came across this article, which bore a curious claim that made conditions for the Migrant workers more difficult than I had realised, one which I had not expected:

A camp in Marden, seven miles south of Leominster, houses 1,400 workers, most of whom are Romanians and Bulgarians who, unlike other eastern Europeans, have limited working rights in the UK and cannot change jobs.

This surprised me because I had learnt, or thought I had learnt, in an interesting panel debate about a year ago in which an anonymous gentleman from the Conservative party was chairing, that Britain had one of the most liberal European immigration systems, other member states of the EU having chosen to temporarily opt-out of free movement scheme for new Member states under the Treaty of Accession 2003 and the Treaty of Accession 2005. This was due to an exchange concerning the immigration system of Britain, in which I chose to dispute the idea that we had an unusually liberal approach. I pointed out to my friend that the bulk of liberal immigration was in fact an EU-wide policy, and that outside of it our immigration system was not known for being particularly liberal; to which I got the above response.

Intrigued at the re-opening of what I thought was a closed case (tactical victory on the part of my friend), I decided to do a little research into the subject, and break with the habit of a lifetime and by not relying solely on information generously shared by my peers.

Interestingly, the picture I have gained has been curiously different from that nobly supplied by this friend, whose authority is now in doubt.

According to the chart helpfully supplied by Wikipedia, the United Kingdom in fact not merely does opt-out of the free movement clause for some of the newly accessed member states of the EU, but in fact many of the other countries in the EU do not.

By opting out of the requirements of free movement of workers for both Bulgaria and Romania until at least 2012, Britain is outranked on the “liberal immigration policy” front by:

  • Portugal
  • Spain
  • Italy (which opts out for the same countries, but only until 2010)
  • Greece
  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • Sweden

— and this is excluding the newly accessed countries in the EU – all the countries that I have compared with entered the EU in 1994 at the latest.

Contrary to the popular belief that the French always opt-out of any mildly controversial EU requirements, they are in fact equally liberal to Britain on the free movement of workers policy, opting out only for Bulgaria and Romania until 2012. Other countries on an equal footing to Britain on this front are Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg (one of the sites of the EU Parliament!) and Ireland.

Countries with less liberal immigration systems to the United Kingdom within the European Union are, actually, in the minority. These include Germany and Austria. Hang on, it’s only Germany and Austria. Oh well, so much for our leading the board on anything. If we can’t lead on liberal immigration, what can we achieve?

Light-hearted rivalry aside, I continue to urge anyone who finds the issue of conditions for workers in Brierly and Marden energising to get involved in some way, particularly as the inability to look elsewhere for work minimises the choices for workers who have found themselves with far less work then they expected. The Friendship Centre in Leominster is one of the leading bodies in scrutinising S&A Davies, and Herefordshire councillor Peter McCaull is also involved with highlighting the issues.

Question Time – Europe and PR

Oh dear. I have a feeling this may be a long one.

1) Nigel Farage makes a good point highlighting the absurdity of having an attendance allowance for the European Parliament, despite MEPs having an allowance intended for their incurred constituency expenses (an allowance isn’t the same thing as an expenses system; it’s merely an additional lump sum that is justified on the basis of something, there is no legal requirement to use it for this purpose). He claims the attendance allowance makes it less profitable to be in your ‘constituency’ (the word is used loosely here, the regions are ludicrously big and an MEP does not personally represent a region, he shares the representation of it with 5 or 6 other MEPs), therefore explaining why your MEP is never visible in your constituency and so few people are aware of who their MEP is and angry about said fact.

All so good so far, but there’s really a deeper reason why this is. It’s a peculiarly British concern in many ways to complain that they don’t know who ‘their’ MEP is, because we’re used to the single-member system for Westminster. In many countries in the Continent, this wouldn’t be an issue, because people would be used to the fact that they don’t have ‘their’ own MEP, rather they have several. List PR makes people more used to not having a direct representative and thus not expecting to see any one particular face around the constituency on a regular basis. In other words, List PR dilutes the principle of direct representation, and it’s just that we in Britain haven’t got used to that due to retaining a single-member system in Westminster.

However, there is more. There are many different forms of “List PR” (some which manage to be worse, admittedly, such as ones where the whole country is a single region, but “our system is not as bad as Israel’s” isn’t really too comforting a reflection), many of which at least attempt to counteract the dilution of direct responsibility. If we had a sensible, accountable form of open list, where MPs on the list are allocated on the basis of the number of votes they receive individually, it would at least create a certain incentive to be on some kind of name association terms with one’s constituents. In other words, certain PR systems at least create an incentive for representatives to know and be known to their constituents, however vaguely that is.

Not so our one. The Labour government, having committed itself to reforming the voting system for the EU Parliament along the lines laid down by the Maastricht treaty (if I recall correctly), decided to do so by instituting the worst PR voting system it could think of, namely Closed-list. No good defence has been offered for this monstrosity, and no good arguments are yet forthcoming. It is as if Labour deliberately wanted to stick two fingers up at the EU’s wish that member states should use some form of PR (“some form of PR” is rather vague, it is unclear whether that would include systems which are sometimes called PR, but really aren’t, like STV) – if this was the Conservatives, I could believe that explanation, but with New Labour I’m more inclined to suspect that it was a deliberate attempt to retain complete party control over the candidate election process.

What closed-list does is, very simply, to result in their being virtually no incentive whatsoever for MEPs to know constituents. MEPs can remain nameless, faceless, shadowy figures of mystery for all it matters, because closed-list means that the entire electoral process for elections to the European Parliament is done on the basis of brand recognition. William Pitt the Younger would be turning in his grave.

2) Jo Swinson takes this to be an excellent opportunity to slam the “attendance allowance” that Brown intended to introduce in Westminster but was forced out of doing by his backbench MPs and the opposition MPs. However, there are a few problems with this:

a) Westminster is, actually, quite a bit closer than Brussels to anywhere in the UK. This may sound a bit facetious, but it is actually an important consideration when coupled with the next one:

b) MPs already get working hours which are expressly intended to grant them enough time to serve in their constituency as well as the House of Commons. This is at least partly the reason they get such long holidays and generous working weeks.

c) MPs have a system of expenses rather than allowances. If they’re not working in their constituency as often, the logic is that they can’t claim as much in travel costs and other possible constituency related expenses. Therefore the logic of having an “attendance allowance” to contribute towards accommodation whilst an MP is working in Westminster fits, as the same logic is applied to constituency work. (Admittedly, this is not the way the existing expenses system has been used, as we are now finding out, but the point still stands as a good one, particularly as recent reforms have slightly tightened up the expenses system).

Obviously, it’s lovely to jump on the bandwagon in slamming Brown’s attendance allowance, but yet again I couldn’t help noticing that people slammed it because it was in use in Brussels more than by looking at the context. Also, I couldn’t help noticing the absence of anyone mentioning that it happens to be used in the House of Lords, too.

3) Someone in the audience makes a further point which cements my impression that PR is not a useful direction to turn in as a result of the expenses scandal. According to them, they don’t know how they should vote because “no party has come out of this better, they’re all just as mixed up in it as eachother” (a paraphrase, not a direct quote). The question automatically becomes this, then: if we already have the attitude that we’re not voting on individuals’ records but parties’ ones, in a system where we directly elect the individual politician, then how will a change to an even more party driven system of democracy help, given that this scandal is about the actions of individuals not parties? It is an illogical response to this scandal to pretend that PR would have helped, and arguing so indicates more of ideological bias than balanced consideration.

Due to the influence of having watched this far, and considered the above questions, I have set up the Manifesto for EU Democracy (see previous post). If you feel like continuing the debate about constitutional reform further here and there, feel free.

[This post is archived from June 1st, 2009. The Question Time it refers to was broadcasted on Thursday 28th May.]

A manifesto for European Democracy

[Imported from Facebook; a collaborative project]

We hear an awful lot day in day out about these “unelected bureaucrats” making our laws, costing us far more than we get back, not listening to us and denying us a say when we say the ‘wrong thing’, etc., etc.. What I want to see from people now, regardless of party affiliation, regardless whether they like the EU or not, is practical suggestions to increase democracy in the EU and to turn some of these ‘expensive unelected elitist’ people into accountable, elected down-to-earth ones.

I want this topic to be purely focused on democracy – not whether or not we should be in the EU, not whether we should pay as much into it, but simply what practical ways there are for us to make it more democratic. I want the ideas wherever possible to be ones which our national government can implement, but I want to hear all EU-wide suggestions for reform as well. Just bear in mind that the most achievable ideas for the time being are ones that can be achieved on a national basis.

(Inspired by the wonderful people of Question Time, 28th May 2009)

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The Manifesto for European Democracy

[Tagline: Turning a culture of British moaning into a manifesto for British action!]

So far we have:

Proposition 1) That the post of European Commissioner nominated by this country be subject to democratic election.

Proposition 2) That the Regions currently used to elect EU legislators by means of closed-list PR be split up into districts responsible to each individual MEP elected by the region, districts being allocated to MEPs by the boundary commission. For example, districts in the West Midlands could be Herefordshire, Woucestershire, etc..

Proposition 3) That MEPs be given district offices, which they are required to pay for with their constituency allowance, which the government offers a return on for a minimum amount of time spent in the district office liaising with constituents. Such a return would have to be great enough to create an incentive not to stay in Brussells and claim the attendance allowance for this time instead.

Proposition 4) That MEPs should be required to account for how they spend the allowances granted to them by the European Parliament, particularly that granted to them for constituency work, online, to create an incentive for prudent spending of public money. This will enable their constituents to hold them to account democratically for their use of public money, not just for their voting record, with each election.

Proposition 5) That we should introduce an Annual or Bi-annual event wherein all United Kingdom MEPs are scrutinised by a cross-representative panel that includes politicians, representatives from different sectors of the economy, and Union representatives. Such an event would be televised live, and be an important time at which we would engage with our representatives. Possibly entitled “EU Liason Committee” or “MEP Liason Committee”.

Proposition 6) That the European Parliament should be given the power of legislative initiative, bringing it in line with other lower chambers of legislatures around the world. MEPs would have the power to draft legislation, with the most widely supported bills heading the legislative agenda.

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Lastly, if you wish your proposal(s) to be credited to you, then please make that clear. In the absense of confirmation of this, anonymity is assumed.